My foodie career began in 1997 when my husband Pablo and I bought a 130-acre farm in the Appalachian panhandle of western Maryland. We fearlessly bought 30 goats, bred them, milked them, and began making cheese. Last year we produced 110,000 pounds of nationally and internationally awarded goat’s milk cheeses using milk sourced from six family farms within thirty miles of our mountain creamery.
Pablo is more passionate about food than any other person I have ever met. BC (before cheese) he was an acclaimed chef in Washington, DC. He has a savant-like food memory: He can literally remember what both of us ordered for dinner on vacation in London over a decade ago. Pablo is also Argentine and from a family whose Estancia was lost through generations of South American political and economic turmoil, but his early memories of summering on that Estancia with Argentine beef cattle grazing on hectare after hectare of grass partly formed his relationship to food and farming.
BC, I had a different sort of career in housing finance, but I shared Pablo’s passion for food. I have similar early memories summering on the Iowa family farm of my paternal Swiss grandparents who I watched lose their farm to big industrial farming in the 1980s when I was in college. I made cheese on that farm for the first time when I was six with my paternal grandmother – a gravely serious woman who used few words – but spoke to me about cheese, farming and food in a manner that made me understand quite clearly: these things are Holy.
My maternal grandparents – in today’s lingo – were “food entrepreneurs” first running a butcher shop filled with German sausages, and then opening a bakery with breads, donuts and German sweets like stolen and fruitcake. These small businesses both ended badly with the advent of “super markets” and “strip malls.” But while they thrived, we would anxiously await holiday shipments of goodies: first blood sausages, head cheese, beef tongue, and calves liver packed carefully in butcher paper and sandwiched into boxes with dry ice, then breads, and pastries, and fruitcakes soaked in whiskey.
As a child and then adolescent, those summers on the farm and the boxes of meats and pastries transported me into the past: a “Little House on the Prairie” past where such foods existed and families were happy and wholesome. We were the city-kids from DC. We were the modern family eating modern foods and struggling through modern problems. While these bits of teleported food-experience made deep impressions on me, when we returned to the suburban, dysfunctional, present of my family, I ate our modern foods with a certain sense of pride and a certain assumption of progress. Tang, Steak-Ums grilled with Kraft American cheese slices melted between, Pop-Tart toaster pastries, deboned chicken breasts baked and eaten cold dipped in Miracle Whip, Bird’s Eye frozen peas mixed in instant potatoes, Hickory Farms’ hams, Sloppy Joes, Hungry Man frozen dinners: These were modern foods.
In the summer of 2012, on an all-too typically hot 106-degree July afternoon in Washington, Pablo and I were invited to attend a special White House preview screening of Ken Burn’s film The Dust Bowl. Always ahead of her time, FRESHFARMMarkets’ Ann Yonkers had invited us. At the time, the news media was just beginning to report the extent and degree of the Midwestern American drought that was devastating corn and grain harvests that year – a drought that caused a spiked increase in grain prices.
The screening was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ann Yonkers.
The film, which aired nationally on PBS in November of that same year, was based on author, journalist, and co panelist Timothy Egan’s 2006 National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Time, a history of the Dust Bowl. Baby-boomers like I nearly all carry with them hard-wired, family-amplified, memories about the Dust Bowl, and the hardships that were endured during this first man-made climate change event that struck the Great American Plains in the midst of the 1930s Great Depression. Younger consumers are perhaps more likely to think of the Dust Bowl as a collegiate football event.
The Great American Plains have for generations been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions; American grain, predominantly corn and wheat, has been bountiful and has helped feed a global population that is rapidly increasing and is expected to reach between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by 2050.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Wil S. Hylton’s essay Broken Heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains in the July 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine. Hylton’s essay had me thinking about American agriculture, and the dramatic shifts certain to occur as the Ogallala Aquifer – the great underground reservoir of fresh water under the Great Plains – is depleted and the irrigation systems run dry. The Ogallala has been irrigating American industrial grain farms since it was tapped in the aftermath of World War II.
Co-panelist Lester Brown made a big impression on me. Mr. Brown is President and Senior Researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. He has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” Mr. Brown spoke in beautiful, but rather disturbing euphemisms and metaphors. He spoke of the “food unrest” that lay ahead as global mouths increase and global food production decreases. He spoke of the Ogallala’s depletion and the changes it will cause for American agriculture. More disturbingly for the global-minded, he spoke of the other grain-producing powerhouse regions in India and China that also rely upon above fresh water aquifers that “have been over-pumped for decades.”
Dr. Brown went on to describe pending “movements in the food chain” that will occur among global populations. The average American consumes an average of 1,400 pounds of grain annually – directly and indirectly. Imagine for a moment the grain required to “grow” a steer to virtually a ton before it is slaughtered and neatly butchered into that T-bone steak on the American plate. And conversely, the average East Indian consumes an average of 400 pounds of grain – more directly than indirectly. These food chain movements will occur as grain becomes scarcer, and the less efficient, higher food chain proteins are replaced in the diet by more efficient proteins and vegetables.
A month later, we found ourselves on Cape Cod for our annual dose of rest and recharging. Provincetown is sure to stimulate my creativity, and the proximity to such expanses of sea renders me tranquil. We spent an afternoon aboard one of P-town’s Dolphin Fleet on a whale-watching excursion. Naturalists and scientists from around the world who come to study the whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary staff the fleet; the excursion – despite the distressing lack of listening skills evidenced among modern Americans – brought to mind wonderful memories of learning. I was a sponge.
These wonderful mammals efficiently sustain themselves from the very bottom of food chain; while we humans occupy the other, less-efficient end of the chain. Whether it is to happen my generation or not, I was inspired to mindfully prepare for food unrest and food chain movement.
I am a cheese maker and a cheese monger. Cheese making is one the “special” food arts. It’s linked with the other fermentation-related, micro-biologically-based food arts like wine-making, beer-making and sourdough-based bread-making. These are our oldest “prepared foods” – living, changing, little microbiological eco-systems. Holy-things filled with life.